Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

I used to tell this joke:

An engineer says, "Theory approximates reality."
A mathematician says, "Reality approximates theory."
A sociologist says, "Would you like fries with that?"

Skip forward ten years. It was the early 2000s, just after the first dot-com bubble burst, and I started noticing that all of a sudden, programmers were taking design and graphic designers seriously. Overnight, it seemed, companies had started paying designers competitively and giving them real authority. Somehow, nerds like me who had made jokes about people with "soft" skills (and boy, isn't that term revealing) had come to realize just how valuable and difficult those skills were.

Skip forward a few more years to 2010. After a lot of rear-guard defensive denial on my part, Jorge Aranda, Marian Petre, and others had finally convinced me that "soft" (qualitative) research techniques weren't just another way to explore how software development teams worked—in many cases, they were the best way. When I left the University of Toronto to work full-time on Software Carpentry, though, I didn't transfer that understanding to education. Instead, I only read things based on "hard" data, i.e., statistical results from controlled experiments. In retrospect, it's little wonder I was so frustrated by how little it helped me...

Skip forward one more time to 2012. The web is abuzz with techies and business people explaining how they're going to fix education. What most of them actually mean is, "Here's how we're going to make money from education," but that's not what this post is about. What it's about is that they don't value educators professionally the way they value designers [1]. Just take a look at the ed-tech startups Audrey Watters has profiled in the last twelve months: how many have anyone in house who has spent even two full days boning up on the psychology of learning, the evidential basis for different instructional techniques, or the reasons why previous attempts to technologize classrooms have failed?

I think that if we (and by "we", I mean programmers) really want to help people, we need to meet educators halfway. We need to learn as much about education as we now do about graphic design, business, marketing, and intellectual property law. I realize it's difficult—there aren't "serious amateur" books about education for techies like there are about graphic design [2]—but throwing questions from the Audrey Test into Google is a start. I'd certainly be a lot further ahead if I'd done that two years ago, and I suspect most ed-tech startups will be further ahead two years from now if they get started today.

[1] This isn't an industry vs. academia thing: the software engineering researchers who described statistical work in Making Software didn't feel the need to defend the value of their methods in the way that the people doing qualitative work did.

[2] At least, I haven't found any.

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